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Human Papillomavirus (HPV): All you need to know

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HPV

The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus which is the most common cause of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There are several variants of the virus and an individual may be infected with more than one variant during their lifetime.

Some variants are said to be oncogenic as they predispose to the development of cancers. Cervical cancer (now known to result from HPV infection) which is the second most common cancer in Nigeria and second to breast cancer in the women population can be prevented by vaccination against HPV.

What are the Causes of HPV?

Human papillomavirus
Canva

It is spread via skin-to-skin contact. Though it is mostly a sexually transmitted infection, it may spread even without intercourse. Various ways of spread include:

  • Unprotected vaginal sex
  • Oral sex
  • Anal sex
  • During pregnancy
  • Labour
  • During nursing of a baby

The risk for infection is increased by the following factors:

  • Having a sexual partner with HPV infection
  • Increased number of sexual partners
  • Unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex
  • A weakened immune system

READ: Safe Sex Practices and Sexual Responsibility

Symptoms of HPV:

  • Asymptomatic. Individual does not present with any symptom.
  • Symptomatic. In this case, the individual presents with symptoms which are mostly due to the development of warts and cancer (cervical cancer being the most common form of cancer linked to HPV infection). The presenting symptom would depend on the location of the body affected.
    • Skin: Warts present as abnormal growths on the skin and may be associated with itching. The itching is very discomforting and embarrassing when it occurs around the anus.
    • Genitals: In the vagina, warts may cause painful intercourse, abnormal vaginal bleeding and during delivery, if large enough to block the birth canal (i.e the vagina) can cause obstructed labour leading to caesarean sections.
    • Cervical cancer: abnormal vaginal bleeding after intercourse or bleeding after menopause.
    • Oropharyngeal cancer: could present with trouble swallowing, constant earaches, coughing up blood, sore throat, and hoarseness of the voice.
    • Cancers may cause unexplained weight loss and enlargement of the lymph nodes.

Factors which Increase Risk for Cancer

HPV
Canva
  • Co-infection with other forms of STIs ( e.g. gonorrhea, chlamydia )
  • Having a weakened immune system
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Having many children (during pregnancy, the immune system is depressed increasing the risk for cervical cancer)
  • Using oral contraceptives for long periods of time
  • Smoking tobacco (increased risk for mouth and throat cancer)
  • Anal sex (anal cancer)

READ ALSO: Cervical Cancer: Why You Should Get Screened

Diagnosis and Screening of HPV:

Clinical examination of warts when present could give an idea that one is infected with Human Papillomavirus. The performance of Pap test or DNA test helps detect abnormalities that could lead to cancer resulting from HPV infection. 

Routine screening from the age of 21yrs regardless of sexual activity is advised. It is essential to help identify, monitor and treat health conditions that may result from HPV infection.

The frequency of screening depends to a large extent on the risks the individual is exposed to. In normal circumstances a 3-yearly testing is envisaged. Currently, pap smear is done in the women population but in the male group especially those who receive anal sex, an anal pap test is done.

What are the Treatment Options for Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?

For now there is no available treatment for HPV infection. In children, the infection may go away on its own.

Treatment is directed at the warts and cancers that are present. However, the condition may represent later.

  • Warts
    • Application of medications on the wart
    • Electrocautery (using electric current to burn it)
    • Cryotherapy ( freezing with liquid nitrogen)
    • Surgical removal
    • Laser surgery
  • Cancer. The treatment of cancer depends on the location and stage of the disease. It could be done with the modalities below either individually or in combination.
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiotherapy
  • Surgery

How to Prevent Human Papillomavirus:

HPV vaccine
Canva

Knowing that there is no cure currently to the HPV infection, effort should be directed at preventing it in the first place.

  • Gardasil 9 vaccine (so named as it provides protection against 9 of the many variants which have been known to increase the risk for development of cancer) is recommended for use in boys and girls aged between 9-15yrs. It could also be given to older age groups. The vaccine for now in Nigeria is not included in the national immunization scheme and can only be gotten on demand. However, the cost of the vaccine and awareness of its availability impedes access to it. Note however that genital warts or cancer may result if infected with other variants not included in the vaccine.
  • Use of condoms
  • Practicing safe sex

Conclusion

Cervical cancer is a preventable disease, thanks to the presence of the vaccine against HPV. The government in Nigeria should as a matter of urgency see to the inclusion of the vaccine to the immunization schedule.

The awareness given to Malaria, Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the COVID-19 infection should also be given to the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) as it is the most common cause of Sexually Transmitted Infections and a cause of the dreaded cervical cancer.

We advise that when you are in doubt of a symptom, go to the nearest hospital or better still Speak to a Doctor on KompleteCare. Stay safe.

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Dr. Egbulem Orusaemeka Kelechi is a University of Jos trained medical doctor with 14 years of clinical practice experience. Dr Kay loves to write and educate poeple about health and health related matters.

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